Review: UT Symphony with Jeremy Wilson (and Brahms)

There were a number of things I expected going into last Saturday evening’s concert by the UT Symphony Orchestra. I expected to hear a great trombonist in the Vienna Philharmonic’s Jeremy Wilson (a UT alum) performing in a work one won’t hear every day, Launy Grøndahl’s Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra, and I wasn’t disappointed. This concerto asks of a trombonist—and Wilson delivered unforgettably—not just virtuosity and mastery of the trombone’s extreme range, but delicate, subtle tone one might expect from a woodwind instrument combined with the energy of a powerful, but controlled, brass instrument.

I was pleasantly surprised by the concerto itself which dates from 1924. Grøndahl seems immersed in his own brand of Romanticism that simultaneously suggests, in the orchestral part at least, a 19th Century lyricism (almost Verdi-esque) and a visually descriptive 20th Century melancholic pessimism. What Wilson was able to add to the background sound painting was stunning. He managed both delicacy and rich musical imagery in a solo line that came very close to being truly vocal, something to which he obviously aspires.

What I wasn’t necessarily expecting—but perhaps should have—was that the remainder of the evening’s program would prove to be equally admirable and exciting. Maestro James Fellenbaum opened the concert with Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute, and I instantly knew this could be a special evening for the orchestra. Mozart has the uncanny ability to show up weaknesses in an orchestra’s infrastructure, but Fellenbaum would have nothing of it. Entrances were mostly clean and solid, and all sections were playing with a professional confidence that was noticeable.

However exciting the Mozart overture, and however thrilling Grøndahl’s cleverness and Wilson’s virtuosity, the Brahms which filled most of the second half of the program—the Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, op. 68—seemed to take the evening into new and unexpected territory, at least for me. Let me be clear, this performance from the mostly-student/some-faculty orchestra was not perfect, but in terms of having the soul of musicality, it was sublime.

Brahms came to the symphonic form somewhat late saying “You have no idea how someone like me feels when he keeps hearing such a giant marching behind him,” of course referring to Beethoven. One can almost hear the giant’s steps plodding through darkness in the bass and tympani in the opening. Yet, it is the breath of Brahms, the surging and ebbing dynamics, punctuated by clashes, that define this work and that defined this performance.

There was noticeably excellent work from the woodwinds, especially from principal oboe Bonnie Farr who had a number of gorgeous thematic opportunities. In the Andante movement, the quintessential statement of Brahmsian serenity, the theme first introduced by the oboe and later taken by the trio of oboe, solo violin, and horn was gorgeous. (from the program I assume the violinist was Any Bermudez and the horn, David Jacobs) Equally poignant was the beautifully balanced section harmonies that remind one of Brahms’ Ein Deutches Requiem, completed a few years earlier.

Special performances aside, it was clear that Fellenbaum and the orchestra have grown as one—and that was a real gift for Knoxville orchestra lovers…exactly what we needed for Valentines weekend.

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